Indian food helps me deal with cultural appropriation

Since arriving in the United States in 2018, I have heard from Americans telling me about the benefits of asafetida, an ingredient that Indians have been using for centuries. I see cafes imitating drinks from my culture to sell as their own concoctions. All of this made me feel colonized.

One day after seeing “ginger tea milk” offered in a coffee shop, I felt particularly uneasy. The cafe credited it as “our special home”, but when I tried it, it was adrak waali chai (ginger chai) – an extremely popular drink across India.

Why we wrote this

Seeing American society through the eyes of his country takes our writer on an inner journey that lands in his kitchen. Along the way, she uncovers ideas about colonization and the power of cooking.

In response, I went straight to an Indian grocery store and bought $70 worth of spices. Then I came home and started cooking. I did Sev Tameta, a tomato-based dish that has always comforted me. I felt like I had my culture back.

Sometimes the Indian-style things that people sell aren’t inherently bad. The problem arises when there is no recognition of the origin of the product.

But until that changes, I can still get to work in my kitchen when I need to feel more grounded in my identity.

It’s a feeling I like to share. When I invite people into my space, I always ask, “Would you like something to eat?”

The yoga class seemed calm and serene on the outside. Like any other, it started with “Namaste», a traditional greeting in Hindi and Sanskrit. Except no one there was talking either. A woman next to me had a large lotus tattoo. I wondered if she knew what that meant.

Soon the asanas (exercises) have started. I had a hard time making them because I couldn’t catch up with the English names, and they didn’t use the Sanskrit names. So why did they start with… has no importance. The instructor ended the session after Vrikshasana (tree pose). What, no breathing? She just exhaled and said, “Namaste.” The session ended without any meditation. We were asked to leave before we could collect our senses.

Afterwards, I thought long and hard about why this session bothered me so much. Then I realized it was the same reason turmeric lattes, chai tea, and yogurt rice bothered me. It wasn’t yoga, it was colonized yoga.

Why we wrote this

Seeing American society through the eyes of his country takes our writer on an inner journey that lands in his kitchen. Along the way, she uncovers ideas about colonization and the power of cooking.

Since arriving in the United States in 2018, I have heard from Americans telling me about the benefits of asafetida, an ingredient that Indians have been using for centuries. Influencers on my Instagram and TikTok pages are constantly “featuring” recipes I’ve eaten since I was a kid. I see luxury brands championing marigold and turmeric for skin care, and cafes imitating drinks from my culture to sell as their own concoctions. All of this made me feel colonized.

A difficult dichotomy

The simplest way to describe colonization is that one entity in power inserts itself into another’s space, dispossessing it of it, imposing rules that marginalize it and diminish its identity. While historically the possession taken has been land, in modern society the definition can be extended to culture, language and identity. Cultural appropriation occurs when a power takes something from a marginalized culture and positions it in its own image, often taking advantage of it.

For people in formerly colonized countries, this cultural dynamic relies on a difficult dichotomy, but the end result is usually some form of cultural erosion. On the inside, we often have our own obsession with fair skin and our preoccupation with learning English rather than our native languages. Although English was the third language I learned to speak, after Gujarati and Hindi, it was the first I was taught to read and write. And I’ve experienced a range of privileges because I’m fair-skinned.

All the while, on the outside, fragments of our culture have been taken out of context and commercialized by culturally powerful Western nations like the United States. When this happens, the element – ​​a practice (yoga), a spice (turmeric) or a drink (chai latte) – becomes popular around the world through an American gaze that ignores and alters its original identity. Cultural exchange is a beautiful thing, but when this exchange occurs between entities with severe power imbalances, often the one in the weaker position is overlooked.

Seeking refuge in my kitchen

One day after seeing “ginger tea milk” offered in a coffee shop, I felt particularly uneasy. The cafe credited it as “our special home”, but when I tried it, it was adrak waali chai (ginger chai) – an extremely popular form of chai enjoyed by millions across India.

Riddhim Dave / The Christian Science Monitor

On the left is an Indian preparation of beans and rice known as rajma-chawal, a popular North Indian dish, prepared in Riddhima Dave’s apartment in Boston. On the right is a staple meal from Ms Dave’s home state of Gujarat, consisting of thepla (bread), kadhi (yogurt and chickpea flour) and spicy pickle.

In response, I went straight to an Indian grocery store and bought $70 worth of spices. Then I came home and started cooking. I really wanted Sev Tameta, a tomato-based dish that has always comforted me. The smell after Mom tempered the spices filled my apartment as I followed her instructions. I felt like I had my food, my culture back.

I have since learned to cook many more items. I also made my personal space as familiar as possible. On a return trip to India, I had agarbattis (incense sticks) with the scent of Indian flowers. I also received a pair of ghungroos (ankle bells) that I keep on my dresser to remind me of my dancing days, with a Natraja (dancing god) bust. I have listened to a lot more Indian music since I left India. I also practice yogurt (known in English as yoga) on my own, following the method I learned at home.

But I am not an island in America.

I drink Starbucks chai tea latte, even though the name annoys me. Chai is milk tea, so they actually advertise “milk tea, milk tea”. And the recipe is not very authentic, but it tastes good.

Sometimes the Indian-style things that people sell aren’t inherently bad. The problem arises when there is no recognition of the origin of the product. They are misnamed and taken out of context, and often their source is uncredited. Any business that takes inspiration from a culture needs to understand the context the product comes from and what people call it. Then they need to think about how to integrate this information into their business.

Companies may question whether their actions are socially responsible. Are they doing anything to empower the communities they draw from? Do they elevate the culture they appropriate or dilute it? Do they rebrand cultural products in their own name?

Even a little acknowledgment of the culture of origin would make all the difference for someone like me. I would feel like my identity, which is so closely tied to my culture, is seen and valued.

But until that happens, I have the ability to create my own space filled with the scents and sounds of my culture. And I can always get to work in my kitchen when I need to feel more grounded in my identity.

It’s a feeling I like to share. When I invite people into my space, I always ask, “Would you like something to eat?”

Freeda S. Scott